A Defense of Individual Choice in Matters of Curriculum
Below is a passage I wrote for a PhD class in curriculum theory. The questions was “Who should decide what students learn?” particularly in regards to whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes. I post it here because I think it is a decent articulation of my view that families, parents, and children (rather than either education experts or democratically elected board members) should have the ultimate authority over what children learn.
The question is: who is to decide whether intelligent design or evolution (or both or neither) should be taught in schools. Of all the readings assigned for this week, my views allign most closely with McClusky. The problem is that we live in a society that is simulteneously liberal and democratic, while also talking about an institution (schools) that, in some sense, has as its role something neither liberal or democratic. As long as these three ideals are in conflict – and I think they are – one must simply choose which authorty they thinks trumps the other two: experts (nondemocratic and nonliberal), the majority (non-liberal and non-authoritarian) or each individual/family (non-democratic and non-authoritarian). I believe the best way to decide the issue is to leave the decisions in the hands of each individual/ family.
But let me first explain why I believe we are dealing with three incompatible ideals. As a liberal society, we are committed to the idea that individuals have a right to conscience. As a democratic republic, we are committed to the idea that disputes are to be settled by appeal to the vote (at least to vote in representatives whose own votes will reflect that of the majority). And, in the case of schools, we are also committed to the idea that there are certain things which SHOULD be conveyed to children regardless of whether they, their parents, or the majority concur. (In other words, we believe that curriculum is too valuable a subject to be left to non-experts.)
These three ideas, then, are in conflict and, I believe, irreducibly so. That is because recognizing the one negates the other two. (By example, leaving curricular matters up to majority vote abridges individuals liberty to decide educational issues for themselves, and also takes a stand against unelected experts deciding them.) Why do I choose liberalism over the other competing values as curricular guides?
First, I believe that, all being equal, parents have more vested interest in their offspring than do majorities or experts. As such, parents tend to be in the best position to gauge their children’s’ best interest and are the ones who most clearly have to deal with the ramifications of choices about that interest. Secondly, I wholly subscribe to a social vision that sees the state’s appropriate role as existing for citizens, rather than dictating to citizens. As such, I find it hard to justify a compulsory education while leaving the contents of that education up to state authority rather than parental control.
Thus, as far as science (or any subject) goes, I support the ability of parents to choose what school, and what curricula, they support. This view is not without its problems – what do we do, for instance, if parents simply choose to forgo educating their children? – but the goods outweigh the costs. Most objections center on a belief that they (or experts they agree with) simply know best how to educate all children, which rests on the further assumption that there is a ‘best way’ to educate children and that the experts (or majority) know it.
As a final word, a system where parents can choose their children’s education does not in any way preclude them relying on experts or majority opinions on curricular decisions. (They could choose schools experts endorse or that resemble the most popular schools.) Rather, allowing parental choice simply doesn’t DEMAND that parents need not accept any one authority in making educational decisions. Where the authoritarian or democratic method of curricular decisions limits all students to the dictates of either the authority or majority, the liberal method leaves all free to follow whichever authority they choose.